On paper, Charleston Southern looked like the perfect opportunity for Kentucky to pile up some gaudy stats and get plenty of snaps for its backups.
But when Coach Joker Phillips looked at the scoreboard midway through the second quarter and saw the game tied at 14 and CSU with the ball, it was time to scrap all of that.
The Cats eventually pulled away and won 49-21. The performance didn't have the announced crowd of 61,884 jumping out of their seats, but Phillips said he is just happy to get a win after losing five of six.
UK (5-5, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) now must win at least one of its final two games against Vanderbilt and Tennessee to extend its streak of consecutive bowl games to five.
"We need this momentum," Phillips said. "We need this feeling. We've been in this locker room for five out of the last six weeks and haven't had this feeling, so I think this is the momentum that we need to carry us through the rest of the season."
But the Wildcats were far from crisp. They turned over the ball twice without forcing any themselves. They also came up a yard short on a fourth-and-2 in their territory that helped set up Charleston Southern's first score.
Afterward, the UK players admitted it was a little hard to get excited for a CSU team that had suffered blowout losses to Liberty and Stony Brook and was whipped 66-7 by Hawaii in their only other contest against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe.
"We understood coming in who we were playing, and we understood how we should play, but this is big," said UK quarterback Mike Hartline, who went 15-for-24 passing for 272 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. "It wasn't the cleanest win, but I'm glad we just came in and got it done."
Sophomore tailback CoShik Williams took advantage of a depleted UK running-back corps to have a career afternoon. With Derrick Locke sitting out his third straight game with a shoulder injury and Raymond Sanders out with a strained abdomen, Williams, who came into the game with 25 career carries and one touchdown, had 13 carries for 95 yards and three TDs.
Sophomore Donald Russell added 110 yards on 10 carries, including a tough 25-yarder in which he broke several tackles and barrelled into the end zone.
Charleston Southern played like a team with nothing to lose and confused the Cats a few times. True freshman receiver Malcolm Dixon, taking his first snaps at quarterback, had some success running the Wildcat formation and finished with 96 yards on 19 carries. Phillips admitted that caught his defense by surprise.
"I never saw that. I had to check the roster to see," Phillips said. "I mean, he had never lined up at quarterback that we had seen. He obviously was in the game to run the football, and he's a good athlete, and he did a good job of running their offense."
CSU was able to tie the score at 7 at 3:41 in the first when Hartline, under heavy pressure, was forced to get rid of the ball early and Randall Cobb came up a yard short on fourth-and-2 from the UK 49. Andrew Trudnowski then hit Gerald Stevenson on a 38-yard pass and, on the next play, Stevenson took an end-around, faked a reverse and ran it in from 12 yards out.
In hindsight, Phillips said, he should have punted.
"That's considered a turnover, and that's my fault," he said. "That's me being selfish; it was. We probably should have kicked the ball and played field position."
Williams' 41-yard scoring run put UK back in front, but the Buccaneers fooled the Kentucky defense again and tied the score. On fourth-and-1 from the UK 17, Trudnowski rolled right and threw across the field to a wide-open Deon Lee on the left side. Lee trotted untouched into the end zone to make it 14-14 with 7:40 left in the second quarter.
The Wildcats then came through with two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the first half that proved to be the difference. Chris Matthews caught a short pass from Hartline, broke through an arm tackle, and ran 53 yards for his eighth touchdown catch of the season at the 3:21 mark. Williams' 3-yard run at 1:01 sent UK into halftime with a 28-14 lead.
It took the Cats just three plays and 56 seconds to strike in the second half, when Cobb followed up a pair of nice runs by Russell by catching a quick slant from Hartline and taking it 36 yards to make it 35-14.
CSU's last touchdown came after Jordan Aumiller fumbled on a 15-yard first-down catch. The Bucs drove 60 yards in 13 plays to make it 35-21 midway through the third quarter.
Phillips continued to lament his team's turnovers UK has 10 giveaways the last three games and one takeaway, which was forced by the offense last week against Mississippi State.
"The thing we can't do is go three weeks without our defense creating a turnover," he said.
Williams and Russell delivered fourth-quarter touchdown runs that helped make the final score look better. And while it wasn't the thing of beauty many had hoped for, the Cats aren't in any position to complain.
"The bottom line is, you've got to win games," Cobb said. "Look at LSU and how they've won some of their games. But they found a way to win."